My Anxiety is Caused by My Thinking? Part 1 – Appropriate & Inappropriate Thinking

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A question that clients often ask me is:  “Do you really believe phobias, anxiety, and depression come from inappropriate thinking? And that we can learn to think differently?”

Example – Appropriate Thinking

IMG_0216-300x225 My Anxiety is Caused by My Thinking? Part 1 - Appropriate & Inappropriate Thinking

I offer this example. About five years ago my husband and I were in a car crash. It was as we were driving home from a week away on business. It was quite terrifying as we realized there was no way to avoid the other car which turned across our lane, apparently without the driver seeing us.

We were both fortunate that while injured, our injuries were not too serious. But our car was totaled. The people in the other car experienced shock, but no injuries.

After the accident, the road was closed, the police and ambulance arrived, our car was towed away and the police took us to a local rental car location where we promptly hired a car and drove the rest of the way home. While we took it slowly, and stopped several times, the immediate effect of the crash was not to make us avoid traveling by car. We just wanted to get home by the most practical means available – driving.

As we all know though, the adrenaline rush after an accident can buoy us along. It can mask injuries, dull pain, sharpen our wits, and generally help us to keep functioning rather than curl up in a ball on the side of the road! But when reality hits, and we see how serious the situation really is, that changes right? We reassess and develop heightened anxiety?

Well, my husband and I both spent about two weeks at home recovering from various minor injuries. During that time neither of us could really drive. We did think about the accident – and talk about it a lot! – but we focused on how well my husband had minimized the damage, how the car had protected us as it was designed to do, and how grateful we were that things were not worse. After a couple of weeks, we packed our stuff into a rental car and drove back to New York where we both had jobs. Despite the recent ordeal, taking the car was still possible for us. We did not contemplate giving up driving. Granted, we were both a little hesitant when we reached that same intersection – the local police had told us that it is a place where accidents are more frequent. Regardless, after our initial wariness (which translated into greater care and attention) we really did not give it much more thought.

The RealityIMG_0216-300x225 My Anxiety is Caused by My Thinking? Part 1 - Appropriate & Inappropriate Thinking

About 100 people die in road accidents each day in the US. 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year worldwide. Realistically, travel by car is more dangerous than flying. And yet fear of flying is pretty common! (For an interesting look at flying stats, conditioned thinking and modern piloting methods see Chapter 7 of the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.)

Despite the reality of the statistics, neither I nor my husband stopped traveling by car, stopped driving, or cut down on the number of road trips we made. We did not replace our totaled car with a tank, or even a large truck. The slight risk that we face each time we drive was something we put aside and got on with life. We also believed that more times than not, we will have enough control over the situation to be able to avoid the worst car driving outcomes. One day we may be wrong, but we are not going to live life based on that unlikely outcome.

Anxiety vs Incentive

It would be nearly impossible for my husband and me to live in our part of Massachusetts without a car. We need to be able to drive if we are to see family and friends. We need to get to the store, to get to appointments with doctors and dentists, and we both need to be able to work.

I know that at the time of the accident I made a conscious effort not to generalize that specific experience, not to use that one event as evidence that I should never go in a car again. Even as I  projected forward, I visualized future rides being fine. If my mind swirled, I cut off at the earliest stages any thought that one accident might lead to another. I focused on other things, and above all maintained a healthy belief that while another accident is possible, it is unlikely. My belief is that if it happens again, I will deal with the consequences – whatever they may be.

This is an example of how preventing anxiety or a phobia came from appropriate thinking.

Alternative Outcomes

What about the other end of the spectrum, when we take an unlikely event and make it the center of all our thinking. We reinforce our anxiety about the focus of our fear every day. Confirmatory evidence receives weight and attention and we ignore contradictory evidence. This is known as confirmation bias. We scan the news for details of accidents, and don’t notice that all the miles of travel without incident don’t show up in the news!

Instead of believing that future drives will be fine, imagine if I focused on all the ways a drive could go wrong:

  • The driver of our car or another car could lose consciousness
  • The brakes could fail
  • Another driver may be texting, eating or screaming at the kids in the back of their car
  • I could fall asleep at the wheel
  • Someone could tamper with my car
  • The engine could catch fire (only a real concern if you are still driving a Ford Pinto!)
  • Another vehicle could cross into my lane out of control

I could go on building this list all day, but how would that serve me? It would build my anxiety and stress, but I would still need to drive. It is often said that what we focus on grows. Focusing on the ways that driving could be dangerous, would not only increase our stress, but might actually make the situation more dangerous, making us more tense, and less resourceful. Stress narrows the focus, increases our reactive fight or flight response and actually reduces our ability to reason and problem solve. (More information on the physiology of stress .)

In my next post, I will share my own personal experience of how alternative – and unlikely outcomes – can take over. See part 2

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